For the first 5 1⁄2 innings of LSU’s 2017 season, “sluggish” was a kind term to describe the Tigers’ play. LSU found themselves deep in a 6-0 hole heading to the bottom of the sixth inning.
And then Bryce Jordan decided that it was time to announce his return to college baseball with a grand slam to bring life to Alex Box Stadium. Josh Smith did the rest of the work in the bottom of the eighth when his three run blast gave LSU a 7-6 lead that they would hold on to for their first win on the year.
“I don’t think we played particularly well tonight,” LSU head coach Paul Mainieri said. “In the first game you never know what you’re going to get. I know we can play a lot better than we played today, so we’re very fortunate to win this game.”
“We’ll take a win however we can get it,” Josh Smith said. “It doesn’t matter, a win is a win. Credit to a Notre Dame team who came to play. But it shows that this team are grinders and we’re not going to get down on ourselves. We’ve been through too much to get down on ourselves.”
Thrust into the Friday Night role following the injury to Eric Walker, Caleb Gilbert had his fair share of both struggles and hard luck, allowing five earned runs off of nine hits in 4.1 innings of work. The bullpen combination of Matthew Beck and Austin Bain limited the damage and shut the door on Notre Dame, allowing LSU to come back with a combined 4.2 innings pitched where they allowed just one hit and struck out nine Fighting Irish.
“The whole key to the game for us was the quality relief pitching that Matthew Beck and Austin Bain gave us,” Mainieri said. “I thought they were both tremendous and Beck came in and given us some big outs in some key situations.”
“Austin Bain man,” Smith said. “Wow. I honestly have nothing to say to him. I made an error in the eighth inning and I said ‘pick me up man. I need this’. And he looked at me and said ‘I got you man.’ That’s something that will stick with me forever. He’s my brother and he came out and showed you what he can do on the mound. It’s going to be dangerous for us if we can have him in the back half of the bullpen.”
Notre Dame struck early in the first inning when Cole Daily lead the game off with a single to center field and stole second, advancing to third on a groundout and scoring on an error on Josh Smith.
The Fighting Irish put up two in the third inning when Daily once again led off the inning, this time one of the infield variety. He was advanced on a passed ball, opening up first for Jake Johnson after he took a pitch to the arm. Nick Podkul scored them both with a searing single to left field. Two more runs came in the following inning after Gilgenbach’s leadoff double was redeemed by David LaManna, who in turned scored on Daily’s second infield single. The Irish added another in the 5th to go up 6-0 after Podkul was hit to lead off the inning. He advanced on Vierling’s infield single and again on Kavadas’ sacrifice, scoring on a wild pitch.
Four of Notre Dame’s six runs came from the leadoff position. The Fighting Irish lead off six total innings with a runner reaching base, and those runners came home to score four separate times.
“I just had to keep on making my pitches,” Gilbert said about Notre Dame’s propensity for leadoff hits. “I was trying to force that weak contact to get a ground ball or a double play. It just really wasn’t happening. They were putting balls in no man’s land.”
“In was really stunned with how well Notre Dame played,” Maineri said. “Offensively, they played unbelievably. They had the leadoff hitter on base six of nine innings. That drives you crazy as a head coach, when they constantly have the leadoff hitter on base.”
After a listless start to the game, LSU roared to life on the strength of a Bryce Jordan grand slam in the bottom of the sixth inning. Just like Notre Dame did all game, LSU capitalized on the leadoff batter after Antoine Duplantis reached base with a walk. Zach Watson singled to left and Daniel Cabrera took a hit by pitch to load the bases for Jordan, who made up for lost time in a big way after coming back from the injury that sidelined him for all of 2017.
“It’s a good way to get this season started,” Jordan said. “I had to get out of that funk. I was sitting on a good pitch and I was waiting for it. It eventually came. I definitely could feel the energy in the place. We just needed that big rally.”
“I would have liked to see him hit that grand slam in the first inning and save me a lot of innings of stress,” Mainieri said. “But he came through with a two-strike count there. It’s why you never give up on the Jordan boys. They’re great competitors and they will battle you every step of the way. Tonight they came up in a big way for us.”
The Tigers couldn’t get anything going in the seventh inning but surged ahead in the bottom of the eighth with Smith’s three run bomb. The home run was set up with Beau Jordan’s one out double down the right field line followed by Chris Reid’s pinch hit walk with two outs. Smith then took a 1-1 count and hit a fly ball with an absurd launch angle that eeked over the wall to give LSU the slimmest of leads.
“I blacked out (going around the bases) honestly,” Smith said. “I don’t really remember hearing anything. I remember going up to bat and looking up to one of my friends saying ‘help me out man, we need this’”.